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Hirata and Saito: love on the run

Police will be following the trial of Aum Shinrikyo fugitive Makoto Hirata closely in an effort to find out how he managed to evade them for so long. His partner in crime, Akemi Saito, will be watching for an entirely different reason

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

The trial of Makoto Hirata, which commenced Thursday, is expected to reveal a number of new facts about the former Aum Shinrikyo fugitive, but of most interest to investigators will be how he managed to stay hidden for so long.

Unlike the two Aum fugitives who were caught after Hirata turned himself in on New Year’s Eve in 2011 — Naoko Kikuchi and Katsuya Takahashi — the 48-year-old was in hiding for almost 17 years while on the lam.

Kikuchi, who is facing trial over her involvement in a parcel explosion at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in May 1995, lived with a man she met while on the run and was working at a nursing home at the time of her arrest. She was on her way home from a convenience store in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, when police apprehended her in June 2012.

Takahashi, the last Aum fugitive, was arrested a couple of weeks later after information from Kikuchi led the police to a construction firm in Kawasaki, where he had been working under an assumed name. Despite being wanted for his involvement in the 1995 sarin gas attacks on Tokyo’s subway system, the 55-year-old had been living in plain sight.

Hirata, however, had never tried to set up a new life for himself during his time on the run. He had no place of employment, received no income and never used a pseudonym.

What’s more, he only went outside three times in 15 years — when changing apartments.

He was able to stay holed up inside his apartment with the assistance of his partner, Akemi Saito, 51, who worked various jobs in order to feed them both and cover the rent. It was her unwavering loyalty to Hirata that helped keep the police investigation at bay for more than 6,000 days.

“I knew Hirata was one of the culprits, but I wanted to protect the person I love,” the former nurse said during a court hearing in 2012 after being arrested and charged with harboring a fugitive. “The desire to protect my love grew so strong that I chose to escape instead of atoning for my crimes.”

The love story of Hirata and Saito would be easy to view through rose-tinted glasses, if it weren’t for the heinous crimes the doomsday cultist is suspected of committing.

Born on March 27, 1965, Hirata grew up in Sapporo. He joined an air rifle shooting club, and competed in a national shooting tournament while at high school. Upon graduating from what is today Sapporo Gakuin University, he landed a job but quit soon after and joined the Aum cult in August 1987.

The 183-cm-tall Hirata had experience in karate and boxing, and he was quickly assigned to be the bodyguard of Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara. He is often seen pictured alongside the guru in photos taken during interviews at this time.

Soon after Aum’s crimes came to light, Hirata was named on the Metropolitan Police Department’s wanted list on suspicion of abducting and confining Kiyoshi Kariya, a Tokyo notary who was murdered by the cult on March 1, 1995.

The police also claimed he was connected to the use of an explosive device that was placed near the apartment of a scholar who was preparing an essay that was critical of the cult on March 19, 1995.

Hirata had also been suspected of shooting then-National Police Agency chief Takaji Kunimatsu near his home in Tokyo on March 30, 1995.

Like many convicted Aum disciples, he has denied any knowledge of the cult’s violent activities. But investigators have questioned this, since he was beside Asahara over the years that Aum transformed into a hard-core terrorist group.

Hirata’s relationship with Saito began soon after the police closed in on Aum following the group’s 1995 sarin gas attacks. He fled the Aum headquarters with approximately ¥10 million in cash a few months before he was put on the Metropolitan Police Department’s most-wanted list on May 31, 1995.

After meeting up while on the run, Hirata and Saito headed north, and passed through Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures before eventually arriving in Aomori. It was the beginning of a 16-year relationship that was kept carefully hidden from prying eyes.

Akemi Saito was born in the city of Sukagawa, Fukushima Prefecture, and moved to Tokyo after graduating from one of the top local schools. She was a student at a nursing school when she joined Aum in March 1993 after taking one of the cult’s yoga classes.

When the pair first met in 1994, Saito said she felt nothing but respect for a man she viewed as her superior. At first their relationship was nothing more than platonic. Eventually, however, the two became romantically involved.

Saito told police she felt sorry for Hirata because he had been accused of crimes he didn’t commit — specifically the Kunimatsu shooting. In fact, she said they had decided not to turn themselves in until the March 2010 statute of limitations expired for his attempted murder.

After starting their life on the lam, Saito is known to have worked at a restaurant in Sendai between December 1995 and February 1996. Using the pseudonym Kyoko Yamaguchi, she waited tables and often took home leftover food that she shared with Hirata.

For a while life was uncomplicated, but Saito noticed she was being followed by police while visiting a friend in Tokyo in February 1996. She escaped — barely — and returned to Sendai, convincing Hirata that they would be safer in a more populated city. They abandoned their apartment and headed for Osaka.

Saito found work in a cafe under a pseudonym before changing jobs and working as an assistant at an osteopathic clinic. Her co-workers at the clinic called her Shoko Yoshikawa.

She told police they had spent most of the money provided by Aum within months of their escape. In order to obtain income — and to allow Hirata to remain at home — Saito worked long shifts and even obtained a license to practice medical treatment.

“I paid for all our meals,” Saito said during her court hearing. “Sometimes I took home the food that they provided me at the clinic.”

Saito was on a salary of around ¥110,000 per month. Witnesses were quoted in various news reports as saying that Saito often purchased two cheap bento lunches and took them home during her lunch breaks.

“I also bought clothes (for Hirata),” she said.

As the years passed, Saito started to consider marriage. “I obtained a registration form for marriage but ended up throwing it away,” she said during her trial. In the end, however, Hirata decided he was tired of living in fear of being caught. He told investigators he was ready to pay for his alleged crimes in an attempt to start a new life with Saito.

And so Hirata turned himself into the Metropolitan Police Department on New Year’s Eve in 2011, and was arrested a few hours later. It almost didn’t happen, though: The fugitive was only taken into custody after being sent to a smaller police station several hundred meters away by an officer on duty, who thought it was a prank.

Saito followed suit on Jan. 10, 2012. Before doing so, however, she reportedly cleaned the apartment where she had been hiding, called the osteopathic clinic and handed in her resignation, and contacted her parents in Fukushima to apologize for what she had done.

She then released a statement through her lawyer that attempted to justify her actions. “I, Akemi Saito, today confess that I have been providing refuge to Makoto Hirata for a long time,” she said. “I am turning myself in.”

She gave details on how the pair managed to elude capture for so long. She also claimed that shame had led them to turn themselves in after they witnessed the misery caused by March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

“Today, for the first time in 17 years, I said my real name,” she said. “I have lived and worked using a fake identity, but my sham life ends.”

The Tokyo District Court ruled that Saito was guilty of harboring a fugitive on March 27, 2012, and sentenced her to 14 months in prison. Judge Noriaki Yoshimura condemned her acts and ruled out a suspended sentence.

He also pointed out Saito was the “only reason why Hirata wasn’t captured for a long time, as she was able to provide income and act as (Hirata’s) spiritual support during the time in which they lived as husband and wife.”

Saito appealed the ruling, but the Tokyo High Court upheld the sentence in July 2012. She chose not to take the case to the Supreme Court, releasing a statement that said she “will pay for the crimes committed, not only in prison but for the rest of my life.”

During the District Court trial, Saito was asked whether she ever felt like leaving Hirata and starting a new life. She said such an idea never crossed her mind. “I consider Hirata to be my husband, my family,” she told the court. “I would like to live with him again after I serve my time.”

At the opening of his trial on Thursday, Hirata appeared in court dressed in a black suit and was wearing a blue tie. His hair had been trimmed and dyed black. He was also clean-shaven, unlike at the time of his arrest.

Looking tense, Hirata apologized to Kariya’s family, saying he felt “sincerely sorry for causing unbearable pain.” However, he said that he was only following instructions and had no knowledge of any specific details of the plan. He also pleaded not guilty to charges related to the explosive device that was placed outside the scholar’s apartment in Tokyo.

Indeed, the only charges he admitted were in relation to throwing a molotov cocktail at an Aum facility in 1995.

“I apologize that it has taken such a long time for this day to come,” he told the court. “I’m sorry for causing so much trouble for everyone, especially the victims, their families, society and everyone involved.”

Hirata’s trial is expected to conclude in about two months. It will include rare testimony by the cult’s executives who are already on death row. The son of the abducted notary clerk has also appeared in court to testify.

Saito, already out of jail having served her sentence, awaits the verdict with an equal measure of tension.


Escape route of Aum fugitives

May 1995: Makoto Hirata and Akemi Saito flee Tokyo together. They first make their way to Fukushima before heading further north, hiding out in business hotels, weekly mansions and cottages. They manage to remain a step ahead of the police, passing through Miyagi Prefecture and eventually arriving in Aomori.

November 1995: The two return to Miyagi and Saito begins working as a live-in waitress at a restaurant in Sendai under the pseudonym Kyoko Yamaguchi.

February 1996: While visiting a friend in Tokyo, Saito notices that she is being followed by the police. She returns to Sendai and the pair decide to move to Osaka.

May 1997: After working at a local cafe for a few months under a pseudonym, Saito obtains a job as an assistant at an osteopathic clinic. She works there as Shoko Yoshikawa until days before turning herself in to the police on Jan. 10, 2012.